Political Novelty, Good and Bad

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Entrepreneurial activity is limitless. This fact has an upside and a downside. On the upside, we can expect a continuing stream of new and improved products and services. If there is a version 2.01.02, we can expect a 2.01.03, and it will load automatically for us. Free markets are expanding, despite the depredations of states, because profit opportunities are constantly being discovered and taken advantage of. This is no less powerful an attractor than the force of gravity. This future holds great promise.

On the downside, we can expect a continuing stream of new and bad government laws, like education subsidies for children of illegal immigrants. Political novelty is a negative attractor, that is, a detractor from wealth accumulation and human betterment.

Business entrepreneurs are generally good for us. Political entrepreneurs are generally bad for us.

Political apologists are as bad for us as political entrepreneurs. From the supporters of aggressive force, we can expect new faulty rationales for the government’s blunders like these for the Iraq War, courtesy of Victor Davis Hanson. We should support the Iraq War (1) because it is not more bloody or stupid than other wars that the U.S. has had; (2) because the U.S. has often experienced major policy failures involving violent actions and wars; (3) because the U.S. intelligence agencies have often in the past utterly failed to determine or understand political and military situations; (4) because wartime presidents deserve our support; (5) because wartime presidents are often despised and scorned, are assassinated, or are victims of broken health; (6) because the stakes are high and we should stabilize Iraq’s fragile democracy; (7) because the war is costly and controversial; (8) because we should be humble and not hysterical; (9) because past wars have seen blacker moods, worse polarization, and riots; (10) because past wars have seen even greater embarrassments, such as the Truman/MacArthur episode; and (11) because past wars have seen even larger divisions between Congress and the Executive.

In one short article, Mr. Hanson manages to manufacture all of the above rationales! They all are variations on the following master argument: The past U.S. wars have been the pits in all sorts of respects. The Iraq War is not deviating from the typical wartime experience. Therefore, we should be happy about it and support it.

Having had severe flu bugs a few times in our lives; when we were so weak we could hardly move; when the hours stretched endlessly and we thought we might not recover; now once again flat on our backs, we are supposed to be happy and applaud the latest invasion of our lungs and intestines. We should be looking forward to the extension of this invasion into pneumonia (or Iran.)

Political innovations in deed and theory satisfy a demand for those among us who like novelty of this sort. That includes me. I can deplore these deeds and theories even while being fascinated by them. But if they were not around for me to battle and dissect, I would find my novelty elsewhere. There have been long periods in my life when I ignored politics and what was said about politics in favor of other pastimes.

Among intellectuals, columnists, reporters, talk show hosts and guests, all of whom profit from the endless stream of new laws and rationales, there is a steady demand for political novelty. They are in the business of dressing up the old and selling it as new. But their New Deals, New Frontiers, and New Orders are the same old apples cross-bred with one another. Obama is a new name and a new face, and not much else. Soon enough, if he hasn’t already, he’ll promise us a new politics, or a new tone in the old politics, or a new beginning, or a new integrity. None will be.

Asked to comment on politics, Duke Ellington said he had read the Bible a number of times, and what he saw going on was as old as the hills. He preferred to write his songs and perform his music. Louis Armstrong did more for novelty, music, and mankind than all the U.S. presidents combined that lived during his lifetime and longer. What did they give birth to except variations on the same old dreadful themes of war, taxes, conscription, socialism, inflation, and misery? Mr. Armstrong provided genius in launching his new music. Try singing along with Mr. Armstrong’s trumpet or singing, and you’ll see what I mean. Deceptively simple, as compared with the multi-note bebop geniuses, he nevertheless divided the bar into 16 or 32 beats; and then hit notes before and after the traditional beats in unexpected ways that leave the listener always surprised. Try it sometime.

We can live without political novelty, most of which isn’t novel at all. We can instead turn to fashions in clothing, art, comedy, makeup, architecture, and music. We can turn to movies, sports, weather, blogs, and novels; or even to gossip about the latest death of a blonde notable. Why is it so many seem to reach such dire ends? Maybe blondes do not have more fun, or maybe they have too much.

While I do not doubt the appearance of truly creative genius in any number of fields, I do doubt that there is a vast quantity of it at any one time. Novelty is abundant. It only requires recycling the old or recombining the old in new combinations. Genius is rare. Its novelty is the newness of something completely new. After the analyzers of all things human go to work tracing the sources of that genius back to its roots, seeing the whisperings and foreshadowings of a St. Augustine, a Dostoevsky, or a Beethoven, we are still left with the marvel of things completely new, not seen under the sun before.

If there is political genius or even pale imitations thereof; if there are completely new ways of assembling and using power or even substitutes for the new, can these ever be for the good? This is strongly to be doubted, so much so that we should invariably answer in the negative. Our standing hypothesis should be the opposite of our society’s current assumption. We should maintain, until proven otherwise, that any exercise of political power is destructive; and any extension thereof is to be avoided like the plague.

When we see or hear political novelty, we should have a finely-honed instinct to resist. It should be deeper than skepticism. It should be knowledge. The new in politics is a confidence game, and we are the victims. Don’t buy in. Put the telephone down. Don’t open the front door. Tell the financial salesman you’ll think about it. Vote for none of the above.

If Adam Smith doubted the benevolence of the baker, how much more we should doubt the benevolence of those given inordinate power over our lives. All those like Mr. Hanson, who applaud the strong presidents who preside over wars and economic transformations, are of the opinion that the conditions of our society, at times and they would say continually, demand that we unite ourselves under the military banner of our commander-in-chief and march forward according to his command and those of our Congress. There is nothing novel and nothing good in this view. What would be novel and good would be that Americans reject this idea.

We might learn from all those other societies that followed their leaders into cauldrons of death and despair. This would be novel. We might learn to distinguish defense from offense. This would be novel. We might learn that the state by nature destroys. This would indeed be a novel lesson for great numbers of people to learn.

Does any of this require genius? It apparently requires more brains than Americans currently have.

Americans might tire of war. Such a change in attitude would be novel and welcome. The U.S. on a wartime footing has now lasted since 1941 without interruption, and that militaristic frame of mind can be extended back to 1898 when the Spanish-American War began. Americans might tire of their domestic wars, that is, the continual and long-lasting bombardments of American life with Congressional mandates. These too have gone on for decade after decade. A shift in attitude would be most novel and welcome.

Such changes in public attitudes, when and if they should ever arise, might come to reflect true and worthwhile political genius among a whole people: a gearing down of the U.S. state; a reversal of misfortunes; a rebuilding of society on a healthy ethical basis; a shift from war to peace; a shift from bondage to liberty; a shift from injustice to justice; a shift from disorder to order; and a shift from continual new mandates to a set of stable and traditional laws.

I’m not a betting man, so I’m not betting on such a shift in thought. Neither am I betting against it. Such tidal waves in novelty of thought are beyond my limited powers of forecasting. My stock market methodology is not to forecast, but to observe closely what is now occurring and has occurred. Then try to understand it as best I can. If a new market environment is coming, the seeds of it may be present in the old.

I’m looking for some signs and signals in the American political environment that suggest a novel change for the better. I for one don’t see them. A trend in motion tends to stay in motion. The American political trend in motion hasn’t altered in a very long time. If Rip Van Winkle fell asleep in 1967 and woke up today, he would not be surprised; that is, if he had assumed a compound rate of growth of government of one to three percent a year and a corresponding decline in the value of the dollar. The same fundamental political forces in motion then are in motion now.

The various worldwide political novelties of the past 200 years went in the direction of more intense totalitarianism, authoritarianism, militarism, fascism, and communism. They began with novel ideas of socialism and remaking society along rational lines that, like a disease, infected all manner of political thought. Socialism, supposedly scientific and rational, was the novelty that attracted like a light attracts the moth.

Are these failed efforts merely precursors to even more thorough-going efforts to control vast numbers of people? They will be, if people again make the mistake of being attracted to a new socialism under a novel name. New names do not change content. New words do not change realities.

There will always be a political novelty being promised that will save mankind. There will always be promised some novel rearrangements of concentrated power exercised by a few. Resist them. As the Duke said, they’re as old as the hills. The only good novelty in politics is no politics.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York.

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